Downunderground, by Craig Hilton – book review by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

Downunderground, by Craig Hilton. Illustrated.
Collie, Western Australia, Collie Mail Printing, February 1996, paperback AUS$5.95 (32 pages).

Downunderground cover (front) (Small)Don’t try to buy this. You can’t. Craig Hilton sent me a copy when it was published in 1996. It was long out of print when I had a stroke in 2005; friends boxed up my belongings while I was in the hospital, and it disappeared. It has just been rediscovered. Nobody reviewed it at the time, and it is forgotten today. But it did exist, and as a (ex)-librarian, I am obsessed that it should be documented somewhere. Besides, Craig Hilton is now a popular cartoonist as “Jenner”, the author/artist of the daily Doc Rat Internet strip. His fans would surely enjoy this very much. Perhaps he could publish a new edition, or add it to one of his Doc Rat collections?

Craig Hilton graduated from Australian medical school as a general practitioner (GP) in the 1980s. He was also active as a furry cartoonist during this time. One of the requirements of new Australian GPs is that they spend several years interning in a variety of small towns that need a doctor. Hilton did. Around 1990-‘91 he (with his wife, Julia) was the only doctor in Collie, Western Australia; a coal-mining town “a hundred miles from anywhere” (actually 132 miles south of Perth, the state capital). Medical duties there were not onerous, and he had considerable spare time on his hands. He volunteered to draw a free comic strip for the town’s weekly newspaper.

Downunderground was the result. It poked mild fun at the town around him, with the characters portrayed as anthropomorphic Australian animals. The main characters were a group of coal miners: in their mine, at their sports, at the married Numbat’s home life, reacting to town festivals and visits from prominent politicians.

“I created Downunderground as a tribute to the blokes and sheilas who turn the wheels of industry in Collie, the beautiful Western Australian town I love so much. The strip first appeared in the Collie Mail newspaper on 14th March 1991 and ran for a year. Looking back on it now, I can see it chronicles a town evaluating its future as the powerhouse of the south-west and an industry in the throes of tightening up its act, introducing night shifts, trimming back employee numbers and hanging on the politicians’ every word for the on-again/off-again promise of a new power station.” (p. 2)

The main characters are Bruce Roo, a new miner who is the butt of the veteran miners’ macho humor; Norrie Numbat, Bruce’s true blue mate, Norrie’s wife Narelle, and their four children; Darren Emu, the grumpy mine supervisor; Wayne Magpie, the group’s complainer; and Bill Lizard–

“He’s not really bad. A dag maybe – a drongo, creep, slacker, backslider, loser, sleaze and all-round pain in the neck, but never anything worse than that. It’s also true that he loves to play jokes on people and doesn’t know when to stop.” (p. 3)

Hilton’s brief Introduction does a good job of explaining all of the ingroup references, such as Norrie Numbat putting up the cover of Collie’s Yellow Pages as a pinup – it featured a numbat that year. As you can tell from the quotations, there is a lot of Aussie slang here. The 32 pages present two strips per page, for a total of 57 full-sized strips and a final half-sized strip drawn for this booklet.

DownUndergroundI e-mailed Hilton about my intent to write this review, and he sent me some additional reminisces. (To digress, thank Roscoe for instant global e-mail today! I don’t think that it existed back in 1996; I certainly was not on it yet. We wrote paper letters that were sent by Air Mail, and took about two weeks to be delivered. “You young whippersnappers don’t realize … why, in my day …”)

He was the doctor in Collie from 1990 to 1999. This 1996 booklet, printed in a run of 200 copies, includes the entire 1991-’92 comic strip, plus a couple of strips that were never published for one reason or another. Downunderground was cancelled in 1992 by the newspaper’s editor because, she said, even though it was popular and was being provided free, it was occupying valuable newspaper space that could be sold for additional advertising.

Downunderground cover (rear) (Small)There is a final comment here that “Life goes on. You can read about it in their next book.” By 1996 Collie’s underground coal mines had all closed, and the town had gone over to open cut mining. If Downunderground had continued, Bruce Roo and his mates would have had to become truckers hauling the raw coal between the mine and the town for processing. At the time this booklet was published, Hilton was toying with the idea of resuming the strip, changing the title to Diggers, and publishing it in fanzines and the occasional Australian magazine, to be collected and sold in similar booklets. This collection of the 1991-’92 strip would have become the first of a series of booklets. It would have evolved from gag-a-day humor to a stronger story line about the characters’ daily lives. Hilton printed this booklet and made notes for the new strip’s stories before the project faded away. In any event he did not continue it. In 1999 he was transferred to Airlie Beach and Proserpine in Queensland (near the Great Barrier Reef), then to Doomadgee Aboriginal Mission (population about 1,000) on the other side of Queensland by the Northern Territory border, and finally to a big city, Melbourne, Victoria where he finished his service. He settled in a suburb of Melbourne and set up a regular private GP practice, where he and Julia are today. When he did resume publishing a comic strip, it was with Doc Rat on the Internet in 2006. His unpublished Digger scenarios were reworked into Doc Rat story lines. He has occasionally considered working the Downunderground cast into Doc Rat, but they would have to be so changed that they would hardly be recognizable as the same characters. One big difference is that in Downunderground, they are unclothed animals except for miners’ boots and hard hats. In “Doc Rat” all the animals wear clothes.

So this Downunderground booklet is a furry rarity that almost no one knows about. But it does exist, and it reprints a complete furry newspaper comic strip. Hilton has a few unsold copies left. Contact him at the Doc Rat website if you want to buy a copy.

– Fred Patten